In a one-to-one interview with Palatinate, Shakira Martin opens up about uni bosses’ salaries, no-platforming and why she voted Labour at the general election.
By Eugene Smith and Tania Chakraborti
Shakira Martin is no Malia Bouattia.
Though she does now fill the shoes of the embattled former NUS president, her election to the top job this April signalled a marked shift in the outlook and operations of the UK’s largest student movement.
We are reminded of this as we wait to talk with Ms Martin at an NUS media event in Amnesty International’s London HQ. Her press officer, clutching a full schedule of other interviews, tells us how after the election her PR role changed from defending the NUS from controversy to promoting it in more positive terms.
Another reminder of our subject’s distinctiveness comes when the same press officer restricts us to a ten-minute chat because the 29 year-old mother-of-two must be home by seven to attend to “childcare duties”.
Once we’re in the room, Shakira Martin proves to be warm, energetic and forthcoming about her organisation and the state of British student life. Having not eaten since lunch, she fields our questions between mouthfuls of pizza.
The NUS has recently been, we note, maligned in some quarters for its endorsement of so-called “safe spaces” and “no-platforming”.
According to writers such as Brendan O’Neill, as well as Durham student Tom Harwood – who ran for NUS president opposite Ms Martin in April’s election – some of these policies may serve to curtail freedom of speech on campus. How does she respond to the criticism?
“What we don’t do often as a student movement is talking outside of our own bubble,” she admits. “So we don’t talk to people outside the movement in society and [get] them to understand why this conversation of freedom of speech is so important. The whole purpose of No Platform is to make people feel comfortable in that particular space.
“However,” she adds, “students’ unions are autonomous and can make their own decisions about who they will or won’t have on a campus.
“For me, it’s important that we get the message out there and explain our reasons why we have this policy, because it isn’t to hold people back but to create spaces where everybody can feel comfortable to contribute.”
Another student-related controversy peppering newspaper headlines over the summer has been Vice-Chancellor pay, with an array of commentators pitching in to denounce the large salaries being awarded to university bosses.
One Vice-Chancellor subjected to such criticism is Durham’s Professor Stuart Corbridge, who takes home an annual £231,000. Is he paid too much?
“Definitely,” says Ms Martin. “Vice-Chancellors are overpaid. Especially when it’s having an impact when it comes down to [pensions]. These Vice-Chancellors, that are on these high wages, have high pensions, which is contributing to the pension deficit.
“Again, my concern is when they want to push debt onto my students, and potentially might have to increase fees when I’m trying to fight to get them scrapped, it is an issue. I don’t think it’s right that Vice-Chancellors are on these high salaries when you’ve got a mother, or a student that’s a carer, who can’t get any support to continue their studies, and this guy looks nice in his…”
She pauses, searching for a suitable image of gluttony. “In his nice clothes,” she says, with a laugh. “So yeah, no. I’m not feeling that.”
The condemnation of the high salaries perhaps seems less surprising when one considers Ms Martin’s political views, which – especially in light of her established aim to put “class back on the agenda” – are clearly to the left of the spectrum.
So when we ask the Labour-voting NUS president about her reaction to the party’s apparent backtrack on its pre-election pledge to “deal with” student debt, her response is diplomatic.
“One thing about me is I’m pragmatic,” she says, before a long pause.
“When you campaign, you say things to increase the vote. I do honestly believe that Labour’s manifesto was honest and truthful and built on integrity, [but] when pressure’s put on from different areas people start to soften up their approach.
“I believe that we will get free education and the conversation around scrapping tuition fees […] we’ll get there in the end. But I just think that we need to stay strong and not back down at the first hurdle. I think we’re in weak and wobbly times, everybody’s a bit uncertain.
“However, that manifesto was really attractive to students and one thing that I want to be doing this year as national president is making sure politicians and these major parties are actually no longer giving us lip service. I would love for students and NUS to be writing all the educational policy for all the parties, and that free education and scrapping tuition fees is something that is across all of them because students said that that’s what they wanted.
“So,” she concludes, “personally, I’m a Labour voter, and I actually believed in the policies that were in there, especially around education. That’s all I’m gonna say on that.”
Open about her personal politics, Martin is even more forthcoming about how she thinks Brexit will disadvantage international students on a wider scale. Durham University has a comparatively low proportion of international students: 17.3% of the entire student body.
What does Ms Martin think can be done by the NUS and universities to encourage multiculturalism in our institutions?
“International students contribute a lot to [our] economy, and [a large proportion of] the money that universities make is… from international students. With Brexit and what’s going on at the moment it’s a bit uncertain.
“In the Brexit negotiations, international students should not be bargaining chips. Universities need to be supporting international students a lot more when it comes down to [things like] getting a visa, we need to campaign really hard to make them not be part of the migration numbers.”
Ms Martin’s honesty is refreshing when she claims that “one thing I don’t want to do is give lip service and act like I know what I’m doing, so definitely I will be working with the international students’ campaign with their priorities, and doing what I can as president to support and fight for international students.”
She chuckles: “I know one thing, those international tea-coffee mornings that universities hold to bring international students together – I’ve heard that it’s rubbish. They invite you for an international tea – and it’s English tea!”
Another major issue facing Durham students is rent. Often, students are paying up to £1,000 in rent over summer for a property they have not yet moved into, with some tenancies starting in June. What is Ms Martin’s agenda regarding regulating rent prices for students and helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds concerning rent?
“Definitely rent prices and housing is a huge issue for many students. What has been happening over the past few years when NUS has been talking about rent, it has been… from a university perspective.”
But there are also students in post-16 education, she says, “who live estranged from their parents, they have social housing, their rent is extortionate, their band in council tax has gone up, they can’t rent strike. They’ll go to court, they’ll get section 8, they’ll get kicked out of their house.
“The NUS has been working with other organisations who have better expertise in understanding housing in supporting us to get a strong campaign to get rid of these dodgy landlords, to get rid of these stupid barriers to get better terms and conditions for our students and I don’t think there’s one tactic, I think there are different tactics.
“This ain’t,” she says, “an issue that is fun to campaign on, to put on our manifesto or our CV, that we’re actually students who are struggling day-by-day to pay their rent… It’s a big barrier to many, many students accessing education, and these are the issues we need to be talking about.”
Five months on from her ascendancy to the presidency, Shakira Martin is pursuing an unambiguously class-based agenda. She’s yet to ignite anything like the discord associated with her predecessor, but it remains to be seen whether the NUS can feel genuinely optimistic about her leadership in the long run.
Facing constant media scrutiny and with seven million students to please at once, there is always a chance Ms Martin’s prolonged honeymoon period could soon come to an end.
Photo credits: Tania Chakraborti